In just two days, Israelis will go to the polls to choose their next government. We Americans did the same a few months ago, and, on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama will be inaugurated into his second term. In both countries, there seems to be a feeling of dissatisfaction with the choice of leaders. Rarely have I encountered someone – American or Israeli – who spoke enthusiastically about who they planned on supporting at these elections. Most of the time, their choices have been informed more by who they want to lose than who they want to be their next leader.
In the Talmud there is an argument about leadership from the early 4th century between Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah and the rabbis. Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah thinks that the character of a generation parallels that of its leader, while the rabbis believe that the character of a leader parallels his or her generation. It is important to note that Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah was the grandson of the more famous Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. Therefore, Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah was expressing his opinion as a leader, and a descendant of leaders, of the Jewish people. Perhaps this is why he felt that the leader sets the tone for the generation.
The majority opinion, as expressed by the rabbis, disagrees. They believe that the character of a leader is a product of the generation in which she or he lives. They feel that the generation provides the leaders and thus the leaders reflect the character of the generation.
In a way, this disagreement parallels the classic argument about Noah. When the Torah says he was “righteous in his generation,” does it mean Noah was righteous only compared to his evil generation? Or would he have been righteous in any generation?
Today we often express this argument with a question: Do the times make a great leader, or does a great leader make the times?
Perhaps we can gain insight into this question by looking to the example of Martin Luther King Jr., whose life we will celebrate in America on Monday. Dr. King was a transformational leader in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. After he was assassinated in 1968, Professor Seymour Siegel paid tribute to Dr. King at a memorial for him at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York with these words:
“We are all shaken, not only because we have lost a precious soul, an inspiration. We are shattered, too, because his death has shown to us the kind of society in which we live. In this one made, destructive act we know that we dwell amongst a people of unclean lips and violent hatreds. Surely he was wounded because of our transgressions and was bruised for our iniquities.”
Here, Professor Siegel seems to disagree with both Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah and the rabbis. The character of Dr. King’s generation did not parallel his leadership and his leadership did not parallel the character of his generation. Rather, he was a beacon in the midst of a dark time, a prophet with a counter-cultural message of non-violence and equal rights. His leadership, during his lifetime, was not worthy of his generation.
After the competing claims of Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah and the rabbis regarding leadership, the Talmud goes on to cite examples of times and leaders that refute both of their positions. The Talmud then clarifies the debate. What Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah really meant, says the Talmud, was that a leader only influences his or her generation. While the rabbis believe that each generation gets the leader they deserve.
How do our leaders influence our generation? Do we have the leaders that we deserve?
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.